Saskatoon

30 years of giving a hoot helps Sask. conserve burrowing owl populations

Nature Saskatchewan is celebrating 30 years of a partnership that connects farmers with conservationists to monitor a curious bird with a declining population.

Landowners help monitor populations through Operation Burrowing Owl

A partnership with landowners and farmers is helping conservationists monitor Saskatchewan's burrowing owl population. (Calgary Zoo)

Nature Saskatchewan is celebrating 30 years of a partnership that connects farmers with conservationists to monitor a curious bird with a declining population.

Operation Burrowing Owl creates relationships with landowners, who agree to conserve owl habitat and report owl activity back to Nature Saskatchewan on an annual basis.

"That really is the heart and soul of this program, is the producers," said Nature Saskatchewan habitat stewardship co-ordinator Kaytlyn Burrows.

"They're the ones that are letting us know if the species are there, they're providing this information to us and allowing us to come out onto their land."

Operation Burrowing Owl has been running for 30 years, making it one of the longest-running voluntary stewardship programs in Canada. (Dan Plaster/CBC News)

Operation Burrowing Owl started in 1987, when Prince Philip helped raise public awareness about the bird by being present at the launch. 

Burrows said there has been a dramatic decline in burrowing owl numbers in Canada in the past few decades, from 3,000 to 800 breeding pairs.

About half of the 800 remaining pairs of burrowing owls breed in Saskatchewan, where they nest in abandoned burrows made by small mammals like badgers and gophers.

"So the prairies are a really great spot for them because we have this vast open grasslands that are home to species like badgers and gophers that can create those spaces for them," said Burrows.

Burrowing owls nest in abandoned hollows made by small mammals like badgers and gophers. (Tammy Thomas)

The birds spend the warmer months in Saskatchewan before flying south to Texas and parts of Mexico for the winter.

Burrows said almost 360 landowners help conserve 140,000 acres of habitat in pastures and other land, adding that it is one of the longest-running voluntary stewardship programs in Canada. 

"People in Saskatchewan really care about the land they work with every day," said Burrows.

"It's their livelihood and they also really care about the species that call it home and one of those species are the burrowing owls."

The information reported by the landowners is then used to guide efforts to restore the population.

Burrows said anyone who wants to help the burrowing owls should report sightings to Nature Saskatchewan by calling the "hootline" at 1-800-667-HOOT.

With files from CBC's Dan Plaster

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